Atheism – The absence of theism. So if you doubt the existence of any gods more than you believe in one or more of them, you’re an atheist.
Some years back Washington Post Magazine ran a then-rare story on a strange and scarce species. A kind of person most Americans are so bigoted against that they refuse to vote for them, marry them, or even allow them into the Boy Scouts. These unusual creatures are American atheists, which the old joke said could all fit into a Manhattan phone booth. That was then, this is now.
As the survey results come in, as the irreligious best-sellers sell, and as the scientific analysis gets published, it is increasingly clear that Western atheism has evolved into a forward-looking movement that has the wind at its back, is behind the success of the best run societies yet seen in human history, and is challenging religion as the better basis of morality. Even in the U.S., a religious anomaly in the Western world, atheists are making major gains while Christianity withers, already having lost the mainstream culture to secularism. The least religious regions of the nation are enjoying superior societal conditions.
Religious conservatives commonly contend that only a transcendent supernatural intelligent designer can provide the absolute and perfect morality and the wisdom necessary to run successful societies – it’s become the de facto position of the GOP. Many religious liberals and atheists agree that both theism and atheism are sufficiently moral and practical to generate similarly successful cultures. This series will show that both views are errant. The science-based evidence leaves no doubt that, although very human in its flaws, democratic atheism is proving superior to faith-based mythical doctrines in practical societal and moral terms.
Before we proceed further, we need to take a look at where the planet is concerning the changing status of popular opinion on the reality or non-reality of the gods. According to the tabulations of the World Christian Encyclopedia, the globe was fairly consistently religious circa 1900. It no longer is. The WCE concludes that atheists from committed to agnostic currently number about a billion. Pew calculates that some 1st world countries are only a quarter or a third as religious as are the most pious 2nd and 3rd world nations. In some of the secularized democracies large pluralities and even strong majorities qualify at atheists--including agnostics, while the devoutly religious are small minorities, and those churches that are not nearly empty on most Sundays have been converted to other uses.
The still-common claim that nine out of ten Americans still believe in God is an outright falsehood. When asked if they believe in God or not, about 90 percent say yes, but when asked about whether or not they believe in God or a higher power or universal spirit, the actual God-believing theists drop to eight in ten. Two Harris polls also show that a fifth of Americans are atheistic to a greater or lesser degree. These results accord with Pew’s estimate that America in general is half as religious as the most theistic nations. Up to the 1960s only a couple of percent told Gallup they did not believe in God or a universal spirit, all out atheists have since quadrupled to the upper single digits. That’s why Bible skeptics have doubled to one in five since the 1970s, and those who accept evolution are at an all time high while creationism shows signs of slipping. Bible literalism is in strong decline, and the religious right, always a minority, is showing signs of distress as an internal report by the Southern Baptists bemoans that “evangelistically, the denomination is on a path of slow but discernible deterioration.” That’s because the churches are losing the digitally connected, traditional organization-averse youth; today’s twentysomethings are twice as irreligious as was the same cohort in the 90s. (Further details here.)
The future of American faith is grim as the nation undergoes the secularization process that has already pretty much wrecked the churches in the rest of the West. So what will happen to American society as it too becomes as non-theistic as, say, Canada? My next essay will show how the loss of religion is not the big social/moral deal many make it out to be.
Gregory Paul is an independent researcher in sociology and evolution. He frequently writes on atheism and American culture. He wrote this post for washingtonpost.com/onfaith .